What tests are MORE important than cholesterol?

In the conventional practice of early heart disease prevention, cholesterol testing takes center stage. Rarely does it go any further, aside from questions about family history and obvious sources of modifiable risk such as smoking and sedentary lifestyle.

So standard practice is to usually look at your LDL cholesterol, the value that is calculated, not measured, then--almost without fail--prescribe a statin drug. While there are indeed useful values in the standard cholesterol panel--HDL cholesterol and triglycerides--they are typically ignored or prompt no specific action.

But a genuine effort at heart disease prevention should go farther than an assessment of calculated LDL cholesterol, as there are many ways that humans develop coronary atherosclerosis. Among the tests to consider in order to craft a truly effect heart disease prevention program are:

--Lipoprotein testing--Rather than using the amount of cholesterol in the various fractions of blood as a crude surrogate for lipoproteins in the bloodstream, why not measure lipoproteins themselves? These techniques have been around for over 20 years, but are simply not part of standard practice.

Lipoprotein testing especially allows you to understand what proportion of LDL particles are the truly unhealthy small LDL particles (that are oxidation- and glycation-prone). It also identifies whether or not you have lipoprotein(a), the heritable factor that confers superior survival capacity in a wild environment ("The Perfect Carnivore"), but makes the holder of this genetic pattern the least tolerant to the modern diet dominated by grains and sugars, devoid of fat and organ meats.

--25-hydroxy vitamin D--The data documenting the health power of vitamin D restoration continue to grow, with benefits on blood sugar and insulin, blood pressure, bone density, protection from winter "blues" (seasonal affective disorder), decrease in falls and fractures, decrease in cancer, decrease in cardiovascular events. I aim to keep 25-hydroxy vitamin D at a level of 60 to 70 ng/ml. This generally requires 4000-8000 units per day in gelcap form, at least for the first 3 or so years, after which there is a decrease in need. Daily supplementation is better than weekly, monthly, or other less-frequent regimens. The D3 (cholecalciferol) form is superior to the non-human D2 (ergocalciferol) form.

--Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c)--HbA1c represents glycated hemoglobin, i.e., hemoglobin molecules within red blood cells that are irreversibly modified by glucose, or blood sugar. It therefore provides an index of endogenous glycation of all proteins of the body: proteins in the lenses of the eyes that lead to cataracts; proteins in the cartilage of the knees and hips that lead to brittle cartilage and arthritis; proteins in kidney tissue leading to kidney dysfunction.

HbA1c provides an incredibly clear snapshot of health: It reflects the amount of glycation you have been exposed to over the past 90 or so days. We therefore aim for an ideal level: 5.0% or less, the amount of "ambient" glycation that occurs just with living life. We reject the notion that a HbA1c level of 6.0% is acceptable just because you don't "need" diabetes medication, the thinking that drives conventional medical practice.

--RBC Omega-3 Index--The average American consumes very little omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, such that a typical omega-3 RBC Index, i.e., the proportion of fatty acids in the red blood cell occupied by omega-3 fatty acids, is around 2-3%, a level associated with increased potential for sudden cardiac death (death!). Levels of 6% or greater are associated with reduced potential for sudden cardiac death; 10% or greater are associated with reduced other cardiovascular events.

Evidence therefore suggests that an RBC Omega-3 Index of 10% or greater is desirable, a level generally achieved by obtaining 3000-3600 mg EPA + DHA per day (more or less, depending on the form consumed, an issue for future discussion).

--Thyroid testing (TSH, free T3, free T4)--Even subtle degrees of thyroid dysfunction can double, triple, even quadruple cardiovascular risk. TSH values, for instance, within the previously presumed "normal" range, pose increased risk for cardiovascular death; a TSH level of 4.0 mIU, for instance, is associated with more than double the relative risk of a level of 1.0.

Sad fact: the endocrinology community, not keeping abreast of the concerning issues coming from the toxicological community regarding perchlorates, polyfluorooctanoic acid and other fluorinated hydrocarbons, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs), and other thyroid-toxic compounds, tend to ignore these issues, while the public is increasingly exposed to the increased cardiovascular risk of even modest degrees of thyroid dysfunction. Don't commit the same crime of ignorance: Thyroid dysfunction in this age of endocrine disruption can be crucial to cardiovascular and overall health.

All in all, there are a number of common blood tests that are relevant--no, crucial--for achieving heart health. Last on the list: standard cholesterol testing.

Comments (8) -

  • stuart

    5/13/2013 12:56:55 AM |

    Great summary Dr. Davis.  You're the best!

  • Sol y Sombra

    5/13/2013 11:07:44 AM |

    Thank you for the useful information you provide, Dr. Davis. But I have a question: Does it really take 3-4 years to replenish vitamin D stores in the body?

  • Amy Crain

    5/15/2013 2:26:51 AM |

    Dr. Davis..
    My husband decided to give going gluten free a try after I read your book, and shared many things with him.  He has a number of issues.  HBP and taking meds.  Asthma, knee injuries with multiple surgeries over the years, and based on his lipid panel numbers, his dr. like you said, wanted to put him on a chol. reducer.  He went gf for a month, this past month, and just this week had his blood work done.  His LDL # went up from 146 to 164, and his HDL went from 45 to 47.   His Trig at least, dropped from 190 to 122,  So he now has in hand a scrip for atorvastatin (sp.?)..  Even though my husband would be considered a slender 48 year old, he has lost 6 pounds during this month of being wheat free.  I personally began a trek of losing weight a year ago by cutting wheat and sugar, and lost over 30 pounds, going from a size 12 to a 2.  I never had any blood work done, since I didn't have any health issues.  I was really hoping for better results for my husbands numbers so that we could provide a valid testimony to those unbelievers within our family.  I don't have your book memorized, but I've scanned through the blog posts and comments and found bits and pieces about numbers and how some people experience an increase like my husband Bill did.  Could you give me a bullet point laymen's version of the reason for the increase, if it's a concern, and if not, should he get the prescription filled like the dr. ordered so that he can then do the 3 month follow up to see if the med. worked for lowering the #'s?
    OR should I just go back and do some more reading like of the above post and reread the book?

  • Lowering cholesterol diet

    5/17/2013 3:10:25 PM |

    Hey there,

    thanks for the article. I would also like to know does Vitamin C plays any role in lowering cholesterol? I am thinking about writing a blog post about it so thank you in advance dr. Davis.

  • Geoffrey Levens, L.Ac.

    5/17/2013 8:23:48 PM |

    List makes great sense to me but one question arises: In light of recent research showing increased risks outside range of 20–36 ng/ml, do you anticipate any change in your recommendations as to Vitamin D blood level?
    J Clin Endocrinol Metab. Published online March 26, 2013. Abstract

    Thank you.

  • [...] between triglycerides and HDL, those improve with LCHF diet. You can start reading more here;  What tests are MORE important than cholesterol? | Track Your Plaque Blog  Lipid researcher, 98, reports on the causes of heart disease | News Bureau | University of [...]

  • Stephen in Jacksonville

    6/14/2013 9:20:30 PM |

    Tests are important, and I think that there are more people today who are interested in keeping track of their cholesterol levels. This is why I think we live in such a special time. We have access to more information than ever before, and now people can learn about high cholesterol risks without having to go to the doctor. In fact, I have found a number of sites that allow people to track their cholesterol levels online. Obviously, there are some people who may go overboard with access to this information, but I do think that there are plenty of benefits to be had.

Vitamin D: Deficiency vs optimum level

Vitamin D: Deficiency vs optimum level

Dr. James Dowd of the Vitamin D Cure posted his insightful comments regarding the Institute of Medicine's inane evaluation of vitamin D.

Dr. Dowd hits a bullseye with this remark:

The IOM is focusing on deficiency when it should be focusing on optimal health values for vitamin D. The scientific community continues to argue about the lower limit of normal when we now have definitive pathologic data showing that an optimal vitamin D level is at or above 30 ng/mL. Moreover, if no credible toxicity has been reported for vitamin D levels below 200 ng/mL, why are we obsessing over whether our vitamin D level should be 20 ng/mL or 30 ng/mL?

Yes, indeed. Have no doubts: Vitamin D deficiency is among the greatest public health problems of our age; correction of vitamin D (using the human form of vitamin D, i.e., D3 or cholecalciferol, not the invertebrate or plant form, D2 or ergocalciferol) is among the most powerful health solutions.

I have seen everything from relief from winter "blues," to reversal of arthritis, to stopping the progression of aortic valve disease, to partial reversal of dementia by achieving 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels of 50 ng/ml or greater. (I aim for 60-70 ng/ml.)

The IOM's definition of vitamin D adequacy rests on what level of 25-hydroxy vitamin D reverses hyperparathyroidism (high PTH levels) and rickets. Surely there is more to health than that.

Dr. Dowd and vocal vitamin D advocate, Dr. John Cannell, continue to champion the vitamin D cause that, like many health issues, conradicts the "wisdom" of official organizations like the IOM.

Comments (20) -

  • Anton

    12/19/2010 2:20:07 AM |

    Thanks for your great blog, and for your interest in Vitamin D.

    Along with doctors Dowd and Cannell, add Dr. Holick as another pioneer in Vitamin D. research.


  • Anonymous

    12/19/2010 4:58:25 AM |

    I bet natural vitamin d is far superior to oral supplementation.  I think vit D absorbtion is optimized by low carb, but you also need some sunlight added into the picture.

  • Dr. William Davis

    12/19/2010 1:59:13 PM |

    Hi, Anon--

    Where I live, it's been around 10 degrees Fahrenheit for about two weeks straight. Probably too cold to lay out in a bathing suit.

    For many of us, supplementation is the only choice.

    Also, don't forget that the majority of people after age 40 have lost much of their ability to activate vit D in the skin.

  • kellgy

    12/19/2010 5:02:25 PM |

    I just added his book to my wish list and it will be my next read. I am beginning to wonder why don't we seek to reach serum vitamin D somewhere between 100-150 range. Has there been any research indicating any response to these levels? Even with all the recent research focusing on vitamin D, it would be nice to understand overall health responses at varying degrees of serum content from deficiency to toxicity. We need a wider perspective to draw from.

    BTW, an update: 110 pounds and counting . . . My BMI is about to fall into the normal range and my health has never been better!

    This is an unusual thought. Sitting in front of a very warm and soothing fire last night, I was wondering how my skin reacts to the radiation, aside from the warmth and relaxation benefits.

  • IggyDalrymple

    12/20/2010 3:07:51 AM |

    My level dropped 20 points when I reduced my intake from 10,000 iu/day to 5,000 /day.  I went back to 10,000 and now I'm at 63 ng/ml.  I'll stick with 10,000 iu unless I exceed 100 ng/ml.

  • Susanne

    12/20/2010 7:06:08 AM |

    I wonder if there is not a missing piece to the puzzle of vitamin D deficiency in relation to adequate iodine levels.  I have appended text from the website Iodine4health.  In it Dr. Vickery noticed a connection between the two:

    ”I have also noted an apparent connection between bringing sufficient iodine to a bromine plugged thyroid, and the vitamin D metabolism of the body. Although I am unaware of the exact mechanism, it seems clear that the calcitonin/parathyroid hormone/Vitamin D/calcium balance in the body changes as people on iodine loading programs often register as vitamin D deficient when they did not previously."

    I believe this to be my case.  I tested my vitamin D levels for years and they were optimal based on Dr. Mercola's recommendations and I supplemented with D in the form of cod liver oil rarely.  Then I started taking iodine and I had such a dramatic improvement in symptoms that I knew I had been iodine deficient perhaps my entire life.  After 2-3 years of iodine supplemention I am going to get my D levels tested soon.

  • Anonymous

    12/20/2010 12:10:49 PM |

    Please write the name of the test you underwent to find iodine deficient?Is it a routine blood test that nay primary care doc can order?Readers please chime in please


  • Pater_Fortunatos

    12/20/2010 1:02:01 PM |

    Published less than a month ago:

    Vitamin D deficiency in rheumatoid arthritis: prevalence, determinants and associations with disease activity and disability


  • Anonymous

    12/20/2010 9:58:20 PM |

    "Probably too cold to lay out in a bathing suit."

    Did you try without?
    OK, couldn't resist.

  • Anonymous

    12/20/2010 10:21:05 PM |

    Just a quick question about D3 supplements. I know that dry tabs aren't ideal because they're hard for the body to absorb but what about capsulated powdered D3?

  • Anonymous

    12/21/2010 1:34:06 AM |

    Have an observation using a vitamin D light that I thought to mention.  I take vitamin D capsules and have been doing so for around 5 years.  This winter I decided that I would also use a vitamin D3 light pretty much each day in addition to taking the capsules.  I bought a light sold on Dr Cannell's sight.  I've noticed that sunlight and the artificial D3 light makes me feel warm through out the day, something D3 isn't able to do for me, at least.  And with this cold fall/winter going on right now, this 10 minutes of sunlight is a big plus!    

    Well, there might be a nice bonus from using the light.  I think I'm growing bigger, in a muscular way.  I do work out at a gym and have done so for over 1 years.  Just began the slow burn process last week.  But this muscle growth seems to have started around the time I made a conscious effort to use the indoor light or obtain some sunlight.  

    Anyway, no way to prove, and could be completely wrong about this.  Just something I've noticed as my shirts have grown tighter over the last couple months.  Weight has gone up also by a few pounds. I'm pleased.

  • Jessica

    12/22/2010 7:29:50 PM |

    SMK- the test for iodine that we order in our clinic (family practice) is an iodine loading 24 hour urine test.

    patients take 50 mg of iodoral then capture their urine for the next 24 hours to see how much is excreted.

    There is a 2 week prep, though, that helps ensure the test is accurate.

    Dr. Brownstein (?) has several books on the topic. I think he recommends the load testing method in his book, "Iodine, why we need it, why we can't live without it."

  • Chris Masterjohn

    12/23/2010 2:10:47 AM |

    I'll be posting my comments on the IOM report soon, although this sucker is 999 pages long and taking me a while to read.  I don't think it is at all true that it focuses on "deficiency" instead of "optimal levels."  I think it is quite clearly and very explicitly focused on optimal levels.  

    The IOM claims to not have found sufficient evidence to conclude that higher levels are optimal.  Now, I do believe that there is good enough evidence to act on the hypothesis that levels should be above 30 ng/mL, and my impression so far is that there is very little data supporting an argument for >50 ng/mL as some suggest.  That said, I won't be convinced that the IOM is *wrong* that definitive evidence for greater than 20 ng/mL is lacking until I finish reading the report and look at some of the primary references.

    I do think it's important, however, to exercise the freedom to act on hypotheses.  If we needed definitive evidence for everyone we do, our familial relations and whole lives would fall apart.  Still, I think the IOM had a responsibility to assess the quality of the evidence and only solidify what is definitive into recommendations, as long as those recommendations don't preclude the freedom to use higher levels.

    In any case, hopefully I can finish this bad boy in the next week and blog about it.


  • Anonymous

    12/24/2010 3:43:54 AM |

    Isn't anyone concerned about all those studies summarized in the IOM report showing increased mortality at the highest D levels? 50 ng/ml is the highest level that I can justify targeting.

  • Lacey

    12/24/2010 3:17:52 PM |

    Off topic, but...I wish Paleo bloggers were better at spotting and stopping spam comments.

    Blogger Brooklyn said...Awesome Blog!!! blah blah blah blah

    Funny, Brooklyn had the exact same words to say over on Stephan Guyanet's blog:  http://tinyurl.com/2v25wc3

    His wonderful blog that he links back to says, among other things, "In the meantime, they recommend that all people, with or without diabetes, should have a healthy balanced diet, low in fat, salt and sugar with plenty of fruit and vegetables." It's also chock full of plagiarized text.

    Sincere paleo fan or linkspammer?  You be the judge.

  • Travis Culp

    12/25/2010 4:38:25 AM |

    Has anyone tested vitamin D levels in indigenous people? I try to dose about 30 minutes a day of sun during solar noon without a shirt on during the summer and 5000 IU a day for the rest of the year. No idea what my level would be though.

  • Peter

    12/25/2010 12:45:12 PM |

    I'm more concerned about official organizations going beyond the evidence (eat margarine! eat carbs! avoid saturated fat!) than  being over-cautious when there's not a lot of reliable research.

  • Anonymous

    1/4/2011 4:26:38 AM |

    One more comment on my apparently deleted comment - there's a possibiliy I never typed in the word verification code, but I believe I did actually post the comment. Sorry, if I did falsely accuse.

  • Brad Fallon

    3/5/2011 6:08:50 PM |

    Vitamin D Deficiency, what is the best natural source apart from sunshine to help keep the levels up?

  • Anonymous

    3/21/2011 4:15:01 PM |

    I just found my new vitamin store. The prices are the lowest I could find. They gave me a free gift of $5.00 with no minimum purchase and I got free shipping! The code I used at checkout is WIR500. Maybe it will work for you too?